The case for privatising schools

If the case for university fees really stands up then the case holds for almost any public service. Isobel Lindsay argues that there is a much more important vision for the future of Scotland’s universities.

Why are we continuing with free secondary education? Seven years of primary schooling are surely sufficient to ensure that pupils can read the Sun and the Daily Record, fill in their lottery tickets and do a bit of counting (but not enough to understand how much interest they are paying on their credit cards). Those who want to go on to secondary education are enhancing their career prospects and their future earnings potential. Many of their parents can well-afford to pay fees and, if they can’t, we can allow pupils to repay their fees when they are in employment. They logic of what is happening to university fees in England can be applied throughout public services. It is an ideological position that needs to be exposed as such. At its core it seeks to channel all of our thinking into an individualistic, market straight-jacket and to turn the focus away from what society as a whole needs. Don’t encourage debate on the importance to all of us of having a well-educated society which has high technical skills, creativity and cultural breadth and depth accessible to the whole public. We all gain from higher education. If it is good, we get better doctors, betters teachers, better architects, better musicians, better engineers, better actors, better business managers, better social workers and even better accountants. There is no-one in our society who is not touched by the gains from advanced education even if they are not graduates. But the neo-liberal ideology does not want us to think in these terms; only to think about education as just another commodity to be purchased by the individual as a personal financial investment.

How typical that the last Labour Government appointed Lord Browne to produce proposals for English higher education. Browne was the former chief executive of BP who was widely criticised in the United States for his ruthless cost-cutting approach which many considered had contributed to the disastrous accidents at the Texas City Refinery and Deepwater Horizon. Why choose someone like this unless what you wanted was a ruthless, neo-liberal approach? That is exactly what Browne delivered. It was an ideologically-driven piece of work filled with dogma. It devotes a whole section to attacking a graduate tax which is just a small addition to income-tax and which in its best form would be progressive. But it does not present any advantages and does the reverse with fees. All about advantages and no criticisms. If, for example, it is so hard to track graduates who go abroad to get graduate tax paid, why is it so easy to track them in order to pay fees? Where is the analysis of the size of debt burden being proposed on future housing and job markets? In time England will be the only country in the world where the educated professionals will be worse off than if they hadn’t studied or if the market has to correct this, there will have to be higher salaries to offset the debt. Many young adults will be unable both to repay debt and to take on a mortgage. What are the implications of this? Where is the serious international comparative analysis? On the day of publication, why did the briefing about 80 per cent cuts in public funding start? This had not been stated by any Government source. We must hope that there will be strong resistance in England but unfortunately the precedent for this massive increase in fees was set by the universities when they promoted/accepted the fee route in 2003. Scotland took a different route. We should be proud of that and insist that we continue to reject fees in any form. Most students already graduate with student loan debts which they have had to take on for maintenance.

The Tory-Liberal Government is, in effect, proposing to privatise most of university education and is treating all the humanities and social science subjects as if they are merely a personal hobby, unimportant to society. For any subject that is not science, technology, engineering, maths, medicine, there will be virtually no public contribution to teaching. This is saying that there is no public good in history, literature, languages, economics, sociology, psychology, geography, etc. This is an extraordinary decision with potentially major effects on the structure of disciplines in universities. No major economy has a mainly privately financed university sector. Even in the US, fewer than half a per cent of students are in ‘ivy league’ universities. Most are in state (i.e. public) universities and seven of the ten top universities by research income are state not private. While there are fees, these are lower than now proposed for England and they get more public money than in England. The UK has been spending below the OECD average on universities and this is before the drastic cuts proposed. A recent report looked at the comparative effects of the recession on university funding. At the top, Germany, France and the US have been increasing their university investment as a response to recession. In the bottom tier was only Latvia; England was in the second-bottom and that was before the current proposals. Nor is the UK as a whole an over-educated society. The EU average for the proportion of the working population with a degree is around 28 per cent; the UK is around 21 per cent. It is exceptional for advanced countries not to recognise that their economic future as well as their quality of life will depend on investing in a highly-educated population. Westminster now appears set to take a very extreme position and many of the universities in England are now having serious doubts about the uncertain outcomes of these radical proposals.

When top-up fees were first introduced in England, Scotland took a different route. The Scottish Parliament rejected fees but did introduce a graduate endowment of £2000 which could only be spent on student support and was to be repaid when in employment. The SNP abolished the endowment in 2007. Many commentators and some university principals predicted doom and gloom for the Scottish sector as it was predicted that English universities would be awash with money. This did not happen. None of the predicted crises happened. Scotland actually did a little better than England. Its income did not decline comparatively. The rate of applications from fee-paying non-EU students rose faster in Scotland. Predictably the applications from EU students rose much faster because they did not pay fees here but this brings money into Scotland and develops networks in Europe. This was not how the script was supposed to go. Even before the current recession, there was lobbying going on from those in the Blair and Brown camps in Scotland to get the universities to front the campaign for the introduction of fees because since 2003 it was embarrassing to have fees in Scotland but not in England. But it was the banking crisis and recession that revived the view that ‘there is no alternative’. There have been an increasing number of voices in Scotland as well as England presenting marketisation as the only pragmatic option. The experience in England, of course, has been as critics predicted that after the initial introduction of fees there would be constant pressure to increase them and to remove the cap. It has given the green light to government to reduce their contribution and universities have not benefited. Those universities that believe they are in a seller’s market want to let the market rule but this may have a seriously damaging effect on less prestigious universities (which, after all, is most of them). The decline in social mobility is set to deteriorate further.

The Scottish Parliament does not have the full fiscal powers to enable all funding options to be considered. With power, Scotland could choose a more gradual deficit reduction plus a higher contribution from taxation. This would enable a university budget settlement which while frozen would be sufficient for continuity. While we do not have these fiscal powers, we can still maintain free higher education in Scotland – the cost is not insurmountable. It would be made easier if the Parliament was prepared to use one penny of the income tax varying power. But fear of hysterical media attack and lack of any solidarity at Holyrood has ruled out that prospect prior to the 2011 election. We do not have to go down the English route.

This is not to suggest that Scottish universities can be complacent. There will be serious budget pressures and one of the issues that regularly rears its head is ending the four-year honours degree. This merits a serious debate but not the one we usually hear. A four-year specialist degree is not long by European standards. This is especially so if we are to give students the opportunity of studying subjects they have not done at advanced level at school or not at all. What the universities do need to do is to rebrand and promote the three-year degree as a different kind of degree not an inferior one. The general Scottish three-year MA was a popular degree in the past not just a less-advanced level of the Honours degree. It required the study of a language, a science, a philosophy, one of the humanities. This would require some adjustment for more contemporary disciplines but it is a concept even more relevant today. On issues such as year of entry flexibility, the universities have been very open to change for years. They have also encouraged engagement with the wider community as well as, predictably, work with business. But there will have to be leaner administration and more inter-disciplinary co-operation in teaching and research.

The student demonstrations against fees in England have been a welcome initiative, especially since there is an altruistic element in the action. It is the students of tomorrow who will be the principal victims although the impact on staffing and academic disciplines will accelerate soon in anticipation of the funding changes. This is a message to the politicians that they cannot assume that there will be a passive public whom they can ignore between elections. Let us hope Holyrood is watching. Fees will be seen as fees irrespective of the language in which they are presented. Leaving our young people with the choice between giving up on higher education or saddling themselves for much of their life with very high debt should not be the future that we offer them. There is an alternative.